All In The Cards: Arizona’s Fountain Of Youth

Welcome to this special edition of All In The Cards! I hope you enjoy and if you do make sure to follow me on Twitter @QTipsforsports or just search the hashtag #Allinthecards for in-game thoughts and analysis:

In the early sixteenth century, a popular legend spread about a magical fountain that could rejuvenate the elderly. In 1513, Spanish Conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon’s search for that mythical place led him to discover Florida, and to this day St. Augustine uses this story to create tourism. No one ever found the fountain, so it became an unattainable myth. I guess nobody checked Glendale, Arizona.

Around 500 years later in the year 2013, Steve Keim became the Arizona Cardinals General Manager and set out to rebuild the franchise. With new head coach Bruce Arians, Keim built his team around the draft, retain young talent, and fill out the rest of the roster out with veterans who would help mentor the younger players. To get the best mentors, the Cardinals needed players who were great but past their prime and at the tail end of their careers.

No player fit this description better than John Abraham. One of the greatest pass-rushers in NFL history, Abraham was on the verge of retiring when he got a call from the Cardinals. In 2013, at the age of 35, the long-time veteran proved he wasn’t done by recording 11.5 sacks, the most he had since 2010.

Also in 2013, the Cardinals saw one of their former franchise players, Karlos Dansby, return home after three disappointing years with the Miami Dolphins. At the age of 32, Dansby produced more sacks (6.5) than he did in his three years with Miami (6). Dansby also intercepted a career-high four passes and scored two defensive touchdowns. After his renaissance season, Dansby was rewarded in free agency with a multi-year contract from the Cleveland Browns, something that looked impossible when he signed his one-year contract with Arizona.

While Dansby stayed only one season, his success opened the floodgates for the Cardinals. In 2014, several top older veterans signed with the Cardinals hopeful of revisiting their primes. While Larry Foote (34 years old) and Tommy Kelly (33) played big roles for Arizona’s first playoff team since 2009, cornerback Antonio Cromartie (30) did the most to prove you can resurrect your career in Arizona.

Forced to play opposite Patrick Peterson, Cromartie was constantly targeted by opposing offenses as the matchup they could exploit. However, by the end of the year opponents were more likely to target Peterson’s man instead after Cromartie continuously made teams pay for throwing against him. Cromartie finished with 48 tackles, which was his most in a season since having 64 in 2008 with the Chargers, and added three interceptions. He became one of the most recruited free agents this past offseason and ended up back with the New York Jets on a multi-year deal.

With back-to-back successes, even more veterans came flooding in this season. Those signings included LaMarr Woodley and Sean Weatherspoon, who may not be old but were looking to turn their careers around after major injuries.

However, the biggest story so far this season has been the resurgence of former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson. After playing six seasons with the Tennessee Titans and rushing for 7,965 yards, Johnson had his worst season in 2014 with the Jets. Only months away from his 30th birthday (usually the expiration date for running backs) he had rushed for only 663 yards and one touchdown, and he looked like a small speedster who had finally taken one too many hits. Things got worse in the offseason. Johnson was shot in the shoulder in March and found himself without a team going into training camp.

Johnson was thinking about retirement when the Cards expressed interest in him during the preseason as Andre Ellington’s backup. The result has been nothing short of incredible: Through five weeks Johnson is tied for second in the NFL with 405 rushing yards. Johnson is on pace for 1,200 yards and averaging his most yards per carry (5.1) since his 2,000-yard season in 2008 (5.6). There is no way he will top that season, but 1,200 yards would be an accomplishment itself.

This veteran rejuvenation isn’t restricted to one-year rental players. Now in his third season with the Cardinals, Carson Palmer has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL the last two seasons, when he’s been healthy. Becuase of his recent performance, it might be hard to remember that Palmer’s career looked like it was over before he found himself in the desert. Palmer was traded to the Cardinals during the 2013 offseason and in exchange the Oakland Raiders received a seventh-round draft pick. In contrast, the Raiders had to trade a first- and a second-round draft pick to the Cincinnati Bengals to acquire Palmer in 2011. That’s how far his value dropped in just two seasons as the Raiders’ starting quarterback. Now at age 35 he’s playing just as well as he did during his best seasons in Cincinnati.

Other Cardinals, such as defensive end Frostee Rucker, have been having career years despite being their thirties. Last season Rucker, at age 31, had a career-high five sacks and tied his career-high for forced fumbles with two.

This season the most unlikely of players is having a career year: Larry Fitzgerald. The only time he has had more catches (35) for more yards (490) through five games was 2005, when he had 36 catches for 504 yards, and only in 2009 did he have as many touchdowns (5) through five games.

The reason that Fitzgerald is having a career year at 32 is because he has become just as dangerous in the slot as he was as an outside receiver. Fitzgerald can now line up anywhere to create mismatches for the defense. Being in the slot means not being covered by shutdown corners, and if teams do decide to shift their best corner onto Fitzgerald when he is in the slot, they risk putting a weaker defensive back on one of the outside receivers (John Brown or Michael Floyd) and getting burned on the long ball. It’s amazing to think that a guaranteed future hall-of-famer may not have completed his best season yet.


How Has This Been Happening?

It’s worth noting that many athletes have resurrected their careers in Arizona, most famously with the Phoenix Suns and their top-level medical/training staff. However, the Cardinals’ Fountain of Youth is separate from that of the Suns. The Cards’ Fountain of Youth is linked to one individual: Bruce Arians.

In 2013, the almost 61-year-old coach finally achieved his goal of becoming an NFL head coach and told many people that “this is my last stop so I’m going to have fun with it.” That attitude has spread to his veteran players, who see Arians as an inspiration. Here is a man almost twice as old as most of his players acting like he is in the prime of his life. When you play for Arians, age is not an excuse. So older players give it their all and are rewarded with important roles on the team.

The secret behind why washed-up veterans do so well for the Cardinals is that Arians and his staff give them roles instead of positions. Instead of trying to make a player fit into a position, the coaching staff develops plays and creates gameplans centered on letting these players do what they do best within the context of the game. Abraham’s job in 2013 was to rush the passer, so when a play called for extra coverage and thus no extra blitzers, Abraham was trusted to create that extra pressure to make the quarterback feel like he was still being blitzed but without the benefit of having a wide-open receiver.

That brings us to this week, as the Cardinals signed former Colts pass-rusher Dwight Freeney in the wake of Alex Okafor’s injury. One of the best defensive ends in NFL history, Freeney has accumulated 111.5 sacks and has had seven seasons with 10 or more sacks. With this signing, Arizona hopes Freeney can fill in for Okafor and improve the pass rush as a whole when Okafor returns. However, at age 37, Freeney hasn’t been great in a long time, last having double-digit sacks in 2010.

You may want to shake off the signing of Freeney as unimportant, but based on the Cardinal’s track record, this may become the pass rush help this team has needed since Abraham retired. If is anything left in Freeney’s tank, he’ll find it in Arizona.

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